Theatre Review: Calendar Girls, ACE Centre, until Saturday

Chris Clancy (original - Miss September) and Beryl Bamforth (original -Miss January) with the cast and director, Lesley Jackson, of the Garrick production of  Calendar Girls.
Chris Clancy (original - Miss September) and Beryl Bamforth (original -Miss January) with the cast and director, Lesley Jackson, of the Garrick production of Calendar Girls.
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I EXPECT there to be dozens of women queueing up to join the WI after the Calendar Girls hit town this week.

Forget ladies who lunch, the WI is where it’s at after The Garrick Theatre Group introduced its own gaggle of glorious girls from the WI who made us laugh and cry all at the same time on Monday night.

“Calendar Girls” opened for its week-long run at the ACE Centre and what a performance this outstanding cast gave. The few men in it were excellent, yet it was really a night for the “Girls, Girls, Girls” as the closing song went and you just wanted to get to your feet and tell them how proud you were of them.

Forget catwalk models and page three girls, these were real women playing real women telling a true story and did more for feminism in one night than all of Germaine Greer’s bra waving.

And they did it so warmly, humorously and brilliantly.

We laughed out loud with them and cried with them as this beautiful Tim Firth play, based on the story of the original Calendar Girls, was played out.

Just as the real Yorkshire lasses took off their clothes to produce a nude calendar to raise money for Leukaemia Research, our very own Lancashire lasses are doing the same in style this week. They are following in the footsteps of those rather better known leading ladies, Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie and Penelope Wilton from the wonderful film version, but the Garrick girls on Monday were every bit as good and just as brave.

They bared their all for their art when they posed for the saucy calendar with just buns, jars of marmalade, flowers and song sheets to cover their modesty, but it was tastefully done and a credit too to director Lesley Jackson for her clever use of lighting and props to make it very authentic. The comic timing was spot-on, they were word perfect and their humorous rendition of the WI signature song “Jerusalem” was hilarious.

There are so many laugh out loud moments to recall in this fabulous play/musical but who will ever forget the comment to the nervous young photographer about to take his first picture with just currant buns hiding his subject’s modesty – “Lawrence we’re going to have to have considerably bigger buns!” said the wonderful Viv Thornber playing Chris, the renegade WI member who dreamed up the idea of the alternative WI calendar (a far cry from the bridges of Yorkshire calendar favoured by the local WI president).

It was to buy a comfortable sofa for the visitors’ lounge in the hospital where her friend Annie’s husband John was treated before he died from leumaemia. The idea is met with great scepticism, but she eventually convinces others to participate in the project with her.

The initial print run of calendars quickly sells out, and before long the village is bombarded with members of the international media anxious to report the feel-good story.

The women are invited to appear on TV but it leads to tensions between Chris and Annie. All the publicity surrounding the calendar has taken a toll on their personal lives, and they lash out at each other in angry frustration. All is resolved eventually, and the women return home to resume life as it was before they removed their clothing.

Viv Thornber’s co-calendar girls are Anne Chadwick as Annie who portrays the bereaved wife beautifully and emotionally, Anne Baron has the comic role as the unlikely vicar’s daughter Cora, a single mum who worries constantly that she is embarrassing her daughter. She gets it just right and her singing is hilarious. Kathleen Riley is a splendid Jessie, retired schoolteacher and feminist who won’t let age be a barrier to anything; Andrea Cawley is perfectly cast as the beautiful model-like golf widow Celia, “who’s bared her breasts on the back of a Harley-Davidson so a nude calendar is no problem”, and the excellent Lynne Atkinson as Ruth, the meek and mild betrayed wife who has to down a bottle of vodka before she will take her clothes off, but she does it hilariously. They are all wonderful.

All the other parts were expertly done, Eleanor Jolley perfect as the snooty WI boss who is totally against the calendar, Cynthia Sanderson portraying a perfect Lady Cravenshire, James Bateman absolutely cracked it as the nervous photographer Lawrence, Noreen Lobo as WI guest Brenda, Steve Cooke as Chris’s husband Rod and Laura Chadwick as the spa girl who has an affair with Ruth’s husband. Last but not least Geoff Baron was outstanding as John, the countryman who is dying of cancer but before he goes he spreads his love of flowers and sunflower seeds around to bloom when he dies. His peformance was so poignant that it brought a lump to my throat.

And the stage crew should take a bow for their expertise, especially their excellent interpretation of the sunflower field on “John’s hill” after his death.

There were two of the original Calendar Girls at this first performance. They are still raising money for Leukaemia and Lymphona Research through their worldwide fame and their sunflowers of hope. And I’m sure they left the ACE Centre feeling as uplifted as I did.